City Hall Hustle: The Smartest Guy in the Room

Professor Spelman breaks down the cost of WTP4

At what was for all intents and purposes the conclusion of the decades-long Water Treatment Plant No. 4 saga – the City Council's approval to clear-cut and excavate the plant tract – it's not surprising we'd be looking for heroes.

That's what the Austin American-States­man was doing this weekend, with an editorial lauding Randi Shade – the swing vote that propelled the plant forward – as having "not only put an end to a 25-year-old debate over whether the city should build another water treatment plant," but having "challenged the community to change the way it approaches decisions about infrastructure. ... An adroit play by the first-term council member," the editorial page assured us, one that not only "demonstrates that she can play the game but also that building a city doesn't have to be a blood sport." (This, coming from Austin's all-time leader in flagrant fouls.)

While Shade shared some impassioned, enlightened words prior to her vote, it's another speech, from Bill Spelman, that should join the time capsule beneath 301 W. Second, as its nearly 25 phantasmagoric minutes not-so-neatly reprised everything both amazing and maddening about him. "I had an elementary school teacher who once told me that I would not believe that the world was round unless I could prove it to myself," he began, putting a microfine point on everything afterward. "This came back to haunt me in the context of Water Treatment Plant 4."

A New Refrigerator

Of course, the fastidiousness haunting Spelman is a council-watcher's delight, as for a smidge shy of half an hour, we watched him tabulate costs, predict resource use, and suss grand sociological trends. Spelman is a professor, and the Hustle wagers he's a pretty popular one: With his lulling baritone, jovial attitude, and should-be-cloying-but-somehow-isn't collection of rhetoricians' tricks, he's basically every good college prof you've ever had. He even put the damn thing to PowerPoint (itself the latest of several different incarnations, all available on his page of the City Council website).

Starting by demonstrating the recession's local effects, he then tabulated the cost each citizen bears for city expenditures: $56 for the Samsung incentives or a top-of-the-line toaster, $105 for the 2006 library construction bonds or a new microwave. While somewhat expensive examples (has the Spel­man household never heard of Big Lots?), he pointed out "these are not the sorts of big-ticket items people are likely to be putting off because they're uncertain about their economic situation." However, WTP4's half-a-billion-dollar price tag comes to $515, or "a really good Kenmore refrigerator," the kind of kitchen-table conversation-starter most try to put off as long as possible. "We're asking every man, woman, and child in Austin to buy a new refrigerator in the depths of the worst recession since the 1930s. ... I think the City Council should be thinking about this issue in exactly the same way that households all over the city are thinking about it. Do we really need it right now?"

Solid footing, but with another slide in his presentation – this one showing a steady decrease in peak-demand pumping – he started to run aground. The Austin Water Utility's explanation that a 1980s conservation program may explain the decrease doesn't cut it for Spel­man; he extrapolates a long-term trend, not just for Austin but for other cities and the entire state, tied to Environmental Protection Agency findings that population density cuts water usage. An intriguing proposition, but, as is the trouble with all of Spelman's on-the-fly penciling, are we willing to stake our entire water policy on it?

There's no doubt about Spelman's intelligence, and honestly, he's probably the smartest guy in the room. The trouble is that when he enters the wonk realm, he leaves the policy-making universe behind, calculating and expounding theories that would have better served the beginning of the conversation, not its endgame. Granted, in a situation like WTP4, where opponents argue that the utility's numbers are off, there's room for disagreement. And Spelman's PowerPoint slides, each more in-depth than the last, have been bending toward this conclusion for a while. So why did he keep his rhetorical powder dry so long?

On a related note, a popular sentiment at last week's meeting was that "reasonable people can disagree" over the plant. But how earnest does that sound when Spelman, based on his own calculations, says the chance there isn't a statistical trend of shrinking water use – i.e., the chance that he's wrong – is literally only one in 20 million? That's what Spelman said about shrinking peak-day demand – the chance a statistically significant trend isn't afoot is one in 20 million. "If you think the trend is going to stop, you need [WTP4] right now," Spelman said, wrapping up his presentation. "If you think it's going to slow down, we need to revisit this conversation in three or five or seven years and see if that trend is continuing or not. If you think the trend is going to continue, maybe we will never have to have this conversation again because maybe we're never going to need that plant."

Council's Olympia Snowe

Shade, speaking next, began with a laundry list of thank-yous to people for their help in reaching her decision. If it seemed a tad Academy-worthy, well, Shade's been cognizant of her vaunted swing vote status for weeks, if not months, even cracking an Olympia Snowe joke on the dais. But despite the thanks, the reason behind her vote, aside from the standard arguments of supply diversification and environmental benefits, boiled down to a personal choice with public ramifications: "what your risk tolerance is."

The excitement came later, when Shade moved past the plant itself into the general ecology debate, grousing, to the Statesman's pleasure, that enviros have blame to shoulder along with the city. Referring to a recent article from Chronicle staff writer Katherine Gregor, Shade noted WTP4 opposition "was a higher priority on the Eco[-Change] Exchange list than was water conservation. It's got to change. I want to turn the page," to turn "from a swing vote to a bridge vote" through promoting conservation across all avenues.

Noble sentiments that we hope all the council can share, and ones the Hustle hopes especially Spelman, with his inestimable gifts of communication – and backing from the most reactionary environmental and neighborhood blocs most intransigent on issues like WTP4 – can accept. He just needs to train his due diligence inward as well as outward.

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More Water Treatment Plant No. 4
WTP4: What's $15 Million Among Friends?
WTP4: What's $15 Million Among Friends?
One expects Council will be more vigilant the next time around

Mike Kanin, Dec. 14, 2012

WTP4: Running on Overruns?
WTP4: Running on Overruns?
Austin Water wants more money for WTP4

Mike Kanin, Oct. 19, 2012

More City Hall Hustle
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
To the beating hearts of a great city

Wells Dunbar, Dec. 30, 2011

City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time
City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time
Austin's feverish summer a tinderbox for rumination

Wells Dunbar, Sept. 9, 2011


Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Randi Shade, Bill Spelman, Austin Water Utility

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